Few movie characters have it rougher than women in old westerns. Sure, Hollywood's version of the old west was a tough place for men, but at least they also had a shot at fortune and glory. Women were usually saddled with one of two roles: the prostitute, or the hero's anxious lover. Burt Kennedy's 1971 western Hannie Caulder stands out as one of the few westerns of yesteryear that shrugs off such conventions; permitting a woman to play a badass gunslinger capable of holding her own against the likes of Clint Eastwood or John Wayne.
Admittedly, she starts out in a much more conventional place. Hannie Caulder (Raquel Welch, 100 Rifles) is an ordinary housewife who runs a small horse station with her husband. One day, the villainous Clemens brothers (played by Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam and Strother Martin) ride by looking for shelter. They proceed to rape Hannie, murder her husband, steal her belongings and burn her property to the ground. Hannie is left with nothing but a poncho, a horse and a rifle. She knows how to ride the horse, but she's never used a gun before. She plans to learn. The men who did this to her must pay.
Shortly after this tragedy, Hannie meets Thomas Luther Price (Robert Culp, I Spy), a wandering bounty hunter. She offers him water, and requests in exchange that he teach her how to use a gun. He initially declines (“You'll just use that thing on me,” he scoffs), but eventually she wins him over. She isn't good, but practice makes perfect. They travel to Mexico, where a British gunsmith named Bailey (a nice little supporting turn from Christopher Lee, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) makes Hannie a special hand-crafted pistol. Soon, she'll be prepared to launch her mission of revenge.
The film is technically one of the early examples of the rape-revenge genre, but it hardly feels like a western version of The Last House on the Left or I Spit on Your Grave. It spends little time reveling in the suffering of its protagonist (the rape scene cuts away before things get graphic) or her attackers (Hannie aims to kill, not to torture), instead spending most of its time focusing on Hannie's transformation. Her scenes with Culp form the heart of the film. There are hints that a romance might blossom, but their relationship is largely of the mentor/student variety. Culp's performance is a terrific example of an actor successfully playing against type: he sets aside his customary glib charm and delivers a persuasively taciturn piece of work. With his salt n' pepper beard and tousled hair, Culp often looks like Robert Redford's grizzled brother.
Welch's performance is less a piece of acting than a series of poses, but that's not a criticism – the same can be said of many early Eastwood performances. There are moments when the costumes Welch is placed in make her look a bit too much like a model doing a western-themed photo shoot, but she captures the character's early concern and eventual cold-blooded pitilessness rather effectively. Her performance isn't deep, but it feels iconic (precisely what the part demands).
Unfortunately, this cool little revenge flick is nearly undone by the ridiculous manner in which it handles its villains. In their initial appearance, the Clemens brothers are terrifying, vile beasts – unforgivably cruel rapists and killers. After this, the movie depicts them as low-rent version of The Three Stooges, setting up a series of incredibly goofy scenarios (“You idiot! You opened the vault, but you blew up all the money!”) and attempting to wring laughs out a series of wacky arguments. It's an incredibly bizarre decision that feels completely out of sync with the rest of the film – you want the characters to die, but for the wrong reasons.
The other key weakness is the score by Ken Thorne, which begins with a rousing main title theme but quickly begins to push way too hard on a regular basis. I'm not asking for subtlety – this isn't the sort of film that needs it – but Thorne's music is so melodramatic that it occasionally becomes unintentionally funny. And who came up with the bright idea to have someone warble nonsensical lyrics over the main theme during the film's closing minutes?
These peculiar missteps detract considerably from Hannie Caulder as a whole, but the film's best moments also make it more memorable than its familiar genre framework suggests. It feels like the unpolished early version of Sam Raimi's The Quick and the Dead – another Leone-inspired tale of a woman seeking revenge in a world of violent men. Welch doesn't say much, but when she does, she speaks with conviction. “You're a hard woman,” someone tells Hannie. “There aren't any hard women,” she replies. “Only soft men.”
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 85 minutes
Release Year: 1971